Having the ability to find fresh and drinkable water in a wilderness survival situation is one of the two most important skills a person needs to have to be able to survive. Today we will take a look at how to dig a seepage basin or seepage well. This is a very basic water collection method but is also a very effective one, because once you dig the hole and water starts seeping into it you now have a renewable source of drinking water that takes very little effort to maintain and will be safer than drinking it straight from the open ground source or stream. The only 100% certain ways to purify water are by boiling and distilling (collecting condensation) in a solar still, but the seepage basin will certainly reduce your chances of getting a water borne illness by a big margin.
Some people may look at the pictures in this post and say why would a person dig a seepage well right next to an open water source? Because that open ground water may have water borne bacteria or viruses in it and to make it safe I would need to boil it or add iodine or bleach or other water purification chemical. But with the seepage well, as long as I have four feet from the edge of the water source to my seepage well the chances are very high that I won’t need to boil or chemically treat the water at all. The earth will filter out most all of the water borne contaminates for me and I can drink it straight from the muddy little hole.
When you start to dig your seepage well make the initial size at least 12 inches in diameter or larger. If you think you may have to dig down a couple of feet to reach the water table start the hole at least a couple of feet in diameter. The reason is that as you dig down typically your hole will get narrower. I used a small hand sized garden trowel and my bare hands to dig this hole. You could also use a small flat rock or sticks and your bare hands, an e-tool or backpacking shovel, etc.
Once you hit the water table you will notice the soil getting muddy and water will start to seep into the center of the hole. But don’t stop digging. Once you start to get seepage, you still need to dig another 4 to 6 inches so that you can draw water out with out stirring up the dirt.
This seepage well is right next to a open water source, but I still had to dig down about 18 inches before hitting the water table. The depth you have to dig will vary with soil type, moisture content, distance from water, etc. If I were going to dig a seepage basin that isn’t next to an open water source, I would expect to have to dig at least 2 feet or deeper, so consider that when selecting the location. A seepage well doesn’t have to be dug next to an open water source. You can also have luck with them in low lying areas that are surrounded by thick green, lush vegetation in the base of a drainage. They can also be dug in dry creek beds, usually best in a shaded bend in the creek. Or near anywhere that cattails are growing. Concentrate your efforts in low lying areas where water would pool up if it where raining and areas that have a lot of indicators of moisture.
In desert envirnoments you should definetly be prepared to dig several feet, unless you get lucky. But balance the expenditure of energy/water with the possiblity that you may not be able to get to the water table, even after digging two and a half to three deep or more into the earth.
Once I got to the water, I went ahead and dug another four inches or so. This allows the water to pool deep enough that I will be able to use the bottom part of this old water bottle to draw the water out of the hole.
If you have the energy, you can also clean out the hole and lay thin flat rocks in the bottom of the seepage basin as well. This will help to keep the turbidity down in the water as you draw it out. Note: This method will also work on salt water as well. But generally you will need to find a low lying area that is at one or two pressure ridges (or dunes) back from the edge of the water. If you do this right up next to the edge of salt water, it will still be too salty to safely drink. When digging in the loose sand it helps to line the edges of the seepage well or in this case beach well with drift wood to keep the loose sides from collapsing in as you dig. Beach wells can also take a while to fill up, so once you reach the water table, dig a little more and give them time to fill.
The first cup seen below is to show how cloudy and muddy the water is if you start drawing it out immediately. Too dirty for me… Although you could drink it.
The next cup below is what the water looks like if you let the sediment settle for ten minutes. The longer you wait the clearer the water will be.
That’s clear enough for me so I went ahead and had a cup. However, one thing you may notice when digging these seepage basins is that when you start digging, it can smell pretty bad especially in low lying areas that hold a lot of water. Don’t worry the water doesn’t taste like the smell. But it does taste a bit like dirt. However, chances are it will be safer to drink than taking it straight from the stream.
If you don’t have a cup or container to draw the water out you can also use a hollowed out reed to suck it out, or you can just use your hand as I did below as well.